Isak Dinesen 1885-1962
(Pseudonym of Baroness Karen Christentze von Blixen-Finecke; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Adrézel) Danish short-story writer, novelist, essayist, memoirist, poet, dramatist, and translator.
The following entry provides criticism on Dinesen's short fiction from 1987 through 2003. For criticism on Dinesen's short fiction published prior to 1987, see SSC, Volume 7.
Considered among the most accomplished Danish authors of the twentieth-century, Dinesen drew upon Gothic, Decadent, and Romantic literary conventions for her atmospheric short stories. To augment her often fantastic plots, Dinesen frequently distanced her tales temporally and geographically, using eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, China, and Persia as settings. Her characters are similarly exotic, often appearing as grotesque yet heroic figures, defined by an aristocratic moral code. Caught up in events beyond their immediate understanding, these men and women ultimately perceive themselves as participants in a tragicomedy authored by God.
Born to wealthy parents in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen was ten years old when her father committed suicide. Tutored at home by a series of governesses, she demonstrated an early aptitude for languages, drama, and art. In 1903 she entered the Royal Academie of Fine Arts in Copenhagen to study painting, a pursuit that influenced the intricate descriptive style of her fiction. Dinesen left the Academie a few years later and began writing. In 1907 she published her first tales in the Danish periodical Tilskueron under the pseudonym Osceola, the name of her father's beloved German shepherd dog. After a stay in France and later Italy, Dinesen returned to Denmark and unexpectedly announced her engagement to her second cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. In 1913, with advice and capital provided by Dinesen's family, Blixen journeyed to British East Africa and purchased a six-thousand-acre coffee farm outside Nairobi, Kenya. After her marriage in 1914, Dinesen adjusted well to life in Africa, often going on safari with her husband and socializing with British aristocrats, who later inspired many of her fictional characters. In Africa, Dinesen's farm suffered numerous financial setbacks, and her family dismissed Blixen-Finecke and appointed Dinesen as the sole manager of what became known as the Karen Coffee Company. Eventually the couple divorced. In 1918 Dinesen met Denys Finch Hatton, a free-spirited British pilot and hunter who became her lover and the primary audience for her tales. In 1931, after further financial problems, Dinesen auctioned the farm and, later that year, learned that Finch Hatton had been killed when his plane crashed in Tanganyika. She returned to Denmark and began to write under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen,” which was a combination of her maiden name and the Hebrew word Isak, meaning “one who laughs.” In her later years, she became an icon of Danish literature, accepting younger authors into her home in Rungsted, Denmark, and giving public lectures despite her fragile health. She died in 1962 from complications from syphilis, which she contracted from her husband early in their marriage.
Major Works of Short Fiction
As with later volumes, Dinesen composed the stories of her first collection, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), in English, then translated them into Danish. Many critics compare Seven Gothic Tales to the Arabian Nights and the Decamaron. Like these and other works based in an oral tradition, Seven Gothic Tales emphasizes action and description rather than overt intellectual analysis. In “The Roads Round Pisa,” for example, Dinesen intertwines tales of religious fanaticism, romantic intrigue, and murder as she chronicles the adventures of a duke in early nineteenth-century Italy. Critics also discern the influence of the oral tradition in Dinesen's assertion that only through storytelling can humanity emulate divinity. In “The Deluge at Norderney,” a cardinal directs his aristocratic companions to give up their places on a boat to peasants during a flood. Stranded in a hayloft as a result, the cardinal suggests that they pass the time by telling their life stories. After each character divulges their innermost secrets, the cardinal reveals that he is in fact a murderous imposter. He then compares himself to Jesus Christ, another man whose elaborately designed ruse—according to the masquerading cardinal—saved the lives of others. While Seven Gothic Tales garnered considerable critical accolades in the United States and Great Britain, Danish reviewers dismissed the collection, citing its lack of social and psychological realism then favored by most Danish writers. In the decades following its publication, however, commentators from Dinesen's homeland have increasingly regarded the volume as among the most original and important contributions to their contemporary literature.
Along with her memoir Out of Africa (1937), Dinesen's next collection of short stories, Winter's Tales (1942), solidified her standing in the Danish literary community. While greatly similar to Seven Gothic Tales, this collection features a simpler narrative style and more easily recognizable settings as evidenced in such stories as “The Young Man with the Carnation” and “The Invincible Slave-Owners.” Perhaps the best-known short story from Winter's Tales is “Sorrow-Acre,” which is based upon a medieval folktale and set in eighteenth-century Denmark. In this story, a lord promises to spare the life of a serf convicted of stealing if the prisoner's mother mows an acre of grain in one day, a task normally performed by three men. Although the lord's enlightened nephew protests, the mother accepts and clears the acre by sunset only to die as she completes the task. Following Winter's Tales, Dinesen composed two more collections of short stories, Last Tales (1957) and Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). Although both collections elicited critical praise, most commentators agree that Seven Gothic Tales and Winter's Tales constitute Dinesen's most significant contributions to the short story genre.
Evaluations of Dinesen's work have often centered upon her memoirs of Africa, yet most critics assert that her short-story collections will remain her most respected literary achievements. While occasionally impugning the elitist tenor of her stories, commentators laud her artistry, imagination, and wit as enduring aspects of her fiction. They examine her place in Scandinavian literature and outline the various influences on her work. Feminist readings of her short fiction often focus on her biting depictions of misogyny and the oppressive impact of patriarchal culture on women; in fact, commentary on feminist aspects of Dinesen's work reveals a broader debate on the nature of Dinesen's feminism. Exile, cultural displacement, and storytelling are identified as major thematic concerns in her fiction and nonfiction. A few commentators have applied psychoanalytic theory to individual stories, and others have noted her affinity for reinterpreting stories from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Recent critical analyses have focused on the relationship between her fiction and the events of her adventurous life, In fact, Dinesen's life and work has proved to be popular subject for critical study, with more than four hundred scholarly biographical and critical works published about her. She has remained an important figure in Danish literature and her short stories are regarded as a valuable contribution to world literature.